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Here’s how attention to gender affected Colombia’s peace process

Yurluey Mendoza 33, a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla fighter who joined the rebels at age 14, photographed during the 10th Conference of the FARC in the Sabanas del Yari in Colombia. (Joao Pina for The Washington Post)

On Friday, October 7, 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to negotiate and sign peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas, after 52 years of violent conflict. The award came just five days after Colombians rejected the deal in a national plebiscite, albeit by a very narrow margin, leaving the peace process in limbo.

Observers have been commenting on the shock of the defeat and on the added twist of the Nobel. But few in the English-language media have discussed how the attention of the peace accords to sexuality and women’s experiences of the conflict may have affected views during the plebiscite. Here’s what we know.

Some are upset about addressing gender in the peace process

A gender sub-commission was involved in the negotiations, ensuring that the agreement had an “adequate gender focus.” The accords paid attention to, among other issues, addressing gender-based violence that took place during the conflict and ensuring the political participation of women and LGBTI groups in the transition to peace.

The United Nations, as well as Colombian and international media, applauded this approach. However, some segments of Colombia oppose the gender provisions of the peace accords – especially statements referring to LGBTI groups.

At the same time that peace was being negotiated, the Colombian government released a new manual for teachers in public schools, with education material designed to help prevent discrimination and bullying against lesbian and gay students. Former Colombian President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe – not coincidentally, the leader of the opposition to the peace accords — actively opposed these measures. His supporters critiqued Minister of Education Gina Parody, who is openly lesbian, for the curricular reform.

Uribe’s followers coupled these developments with peace-accord provisions that protect people of “diverse sexual orientations and identities.” The uribistas campaigned against what they framed as attempts to promote a “confused gender ideology.” As anthropologist Winifred Tate writes, pamphlets promoting the No campaign read, “Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology.”

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A new group is fighting for “God’s original design” of gender identity and the family

The emerging National Movement of the Family describes itself as “neither political nor religious.” However, its mission statement says that its objective is to “fight in favor of God’s original design for the family and thus for the moral bases that allow us to construct our society.”

Uribe, in his social media, echoed such views, “Saying that one is not born female or male, but that this is defined by ‘society,’ is an abuse of minors, a disrespect of nature and of the family.”

These views argue against extensive feminist scholarship that investigates how gender identities, relationships, and ideas of what is natural are, in fact, social creations. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe suggests “anything that is labeled ‘natural’ is something you are being encouraged not to explain.”

Enloe argues for paying attention to “how anything that passes for natural, inevitable, inherent, traditional or biological has been made … from masculinized peace negotiations, to the romantic marriage, to the all-male Joint Chiefs of Staff.” The point is that ‘natural’ gender identities, roles, and relationships, in fact, require effort and power to maintain.

“Traditional family” ideals also do not help reintegration of former combatants.

As Kimberly Theidon’s research in Colombia shows, programs that have been designed to help ease former combatants’ transitions back to civilian life have been failing –in no small part because real people don’t fit neatly into the narrow categories of “traditional” family structures.

For example, female former guerilla members express concern about expectations to be “more domestic, more feminine” in civilian life than in the FARC – particularly when guerilla life purports to offer some of them gender equality. And yet, the “traditional family” forces are wielding family concepts to challenge the approach to gender identity and relationships that the peace accords lay out.

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It’s important to avoid treating religious groups as having just one “traditional” point of view

Colombia’s religious groups have been powerful actors in the post-plebiscite conversation. Journalist Natalio Cosoy reports that Edgar Castaño, the President of the Evangelican Confederation in Colombia, said that he worried about how the accords’ gender perspective – specifically the LGBTQ provisions – may “infringe upon some evangelical principles.”

He further quotes Castaño as saying that before the vote, President Santos assured him that “we will throw out all that threatens the family, that threatens the church, and we will look for a phrase, a word, that does not create fear in the believers.”

But these are not the only views of churches in Colombia. As Kimberly Theidon’s research in Colombia shows, some pastors try to help parishioners reimagine masculinity during transitions from violence. In Turbo, Colombia in 2013, a pastor said in his sermon:

What did you do as you prepared for church today? Were you so busy getting ready that you left feeding the children to your wife? Did you help make the breakfast? Wash some of the dishes? Dress the children? If not, then you are not living the Word.

On the ground, in other words, some religious leaders and communities may see gender in more nuanced ways than is portrayed in the narrative of religious opposition to the gendered peace accords.

Gender may be disappearing from view. That’s a problem.

The formal Colombian peace negotiations were held in Havana, and included those recognized as victims of the conflict, women’s organizations, and female ex-combatants, among others. Now these groups seem to be fading from view.

Law professor Fionnuala ni Aolain’s work on gender and political settlements finds that when peace processes simply “add women and stir,” meaningful gains may be few. After a peace agreement, promises to take women’s concerns seriously often remain just that: promises, unfunded and ignored.

Could that be happening in Colombia now, post-plebiscite? Over the past few days, Uribe has been meeting with Santos. In the ongoing coverage of these talks, there has yet been no mention of bringing in the civil society groups that helped keep gender concerns part of the formal peace process.

Research by the Institute for Inclusive Security highlights seven “myths standing in the way of women waging peace.” These myths include the idea that “women’s issues can wait until later,” after the urgency of halting war has passed. Another is the idea that “women’s issues are discrete, separable topics” that can be added or dropped without broader consequences. That may limit the creation of an inclusive peace.

Roxanne Krystalli is a researcher on gender, violence, and transitional justice, and a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Find her on Twitter at @rkrystalli.

Kimberly Theidon is the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at The Fletcher School. Find her on Twitter at @KimberlyTheidon.